We’re pleased to share this resource co-created with our colleagues at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), who have developed a Smarter Grantmaking Playbook to help funders better understand and act in the best interest of grantees.
A growing number of funders believe they can be more effective by meaningfully engaging their grantees and other key stakeholders. Many insights they need to solve problems and do a better job as philanthropists reside in the communities they serve.
- What are doing to engage the people and the communities you serve?
- Do you have a clear sense from grantees and other nonprofits how your grantmaking practices contribute (or don’t) to their success, and what you can improve?
- What can you do to build stronger, more open, and more honest relationships with your grantees and other stakeholders?
Stakeholder engagement is the art and science of becoming more connected as a funder. It means reaching beyond the usual suspects for information and ideas; listening and applying new learning about how to strengthen your giving; and involving a wider audience of individuals and organizations in your decision making. Stakeholder engagement does not mean reaching out to anyone and everyone. Rather, the focus is on those audiences who are most affected by your philanthropy and able to offer valuable insights, and whose buy-in is critical to success in achieving your mission.
The risks of not doing this work include frayed relationships with grantees and communities, insufficient understanding of key issues and trends, and a lack of support and buy-in for their work among key constituencies.
During nonprofit focus groups convened for GEO’s Change Agent Project, participants repeatedly noted that the power differential between funders and grantees leads to counterproductive relationships and sometimes can stand in the way of grantee success.
And yet, GEO’s 2011 survey of the attitudes and practices of staffed foundations in the United States found that only 44% solicited some type of feedback from grantees in anonymous form, non-anonymous form, or both. Only half (51%) sought external input on strategy from representatives of recipient communities or grantees. These numbers are slightly higher than the last survey conducted by GEO in 2008, which points to a growing trend in the field, but they also signal a need for grantmakers to do more to involve those who can best inform the work.
Engaging stakeholders in philanthropy will prove a different process for different grantmakers; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. GEO and the Interaction Institute for Social Change have identified activities on the following three levels:
Use low-cost surveys. Grantmakers just beginning to engage stakeholders have some easy, low-cost, and low-effort options. For example, surveys of grantees are an especially valuable way to tap the power of engagement for better grantmaking results. Surveying grantees and others can help you fine-tune your understanding of how your work is (or is not) helping nonprofits address challenges and meet their goals. Try Survey Monkey for a free and easy tool that allows for anonymous responses.
Gather live input. Once your staff and board begin to see the benefits of surveys and similarly simple methods, then it might be time to solicit input and ideas in more active ways—for example, by inviting grantees and community members to participate in focus groups, listening sessions, community convenings, and other events. Such meetings can understandably make some funders nervous, but they’re well worth the risks of getting hard feedback if they allow you to improve your grantmaking. Consider asking an outsider to facilitate to allow for the most open conversation possible. Read how one family foundation convened a county
Share decision making. Funders can work to create a culture of shared decision making in two key ways: Consider whether your staff (if any) represents the communities you serve, and explore whether it’s time to bring community members onto your board or an advisory group. Building a representative staff and board can provide grantmakers with a better in-house understanding of what’s happening in the communities they serve and how grantmaking can make a difference. Read about building a culturally competent board
If you’re ready to dive deeper, you might also consider steps to delegate decision-making authority to others. This moves stakeholder engagement all the way to its logical conclusion by opening up control over grantmaking decisions to nonprofit and community representatives through involvement in grantmaking committees and other steps.
- Do Nothing About Me Without Me: An Action Guide for Engaging Stakeholders (GEO & Interaction Institute for Social Change)
- Strengthen Relationships With Grantees Answers some of the most common questions about stakeholder engagement (GEO)
- The Case for Stakeholder Engagement (Stanford Social Innovation Review)
- Communicating With Grantees: Building Effective Relationships Throughout the Grantmaking Process (Exponent Philanthropy)